Home > Shifting schooling > It’s a tragedy – or is it?

It’s a tragedy – or is it?

February 25th, 2009

The traditional academic curriculum – powerful knowledge for all in the 21st century?

Recently I had to give a talk to a group of secondary principals. I was supposed to be talking about personalizing learning – what it is, why is/could it be good, and what, if anything, it has to do with 21st century learning.

When I was thinking about what I should say, I came up against a problem that has worried me for a long time now. It’s a problem I thought about a lot in the past and left it for a while, but now, in the context of all this talk about 21st century learning, I want to come back to it, to think more—and write—about it again. This problem is a very hard problem (and I don’t know the answer to it – yet), but I think it’s a problem that, because it leads us into some very unproductive (from an educational point of view) blind alleys, is really worth trying to think our way through..

What is this problem? It’s the problem of the traditional academic curriculum. In particular, how and why is it—or should it be—important in schooling? What role does it play in producing (or not producing) equal opportunity? What—if anything—does it have to do with 21st century learning? Does this kind of knowledge still matter, and if so/not, why?

Two stories about the school curriculum debate occur to me as a way of beginning this discussion. The first story is the source of the title of this piece.

The front page headline of a recent[1] Saturday edition of the Dominion Post newspaper read “It’s a tragedy. Teachers fight to save Shakespeare“. According to the text, school principals are “alarmed” that the new curriculum will “axe” Shakespeare and other “basic content” in a drive to make school subjects “achievable” by more students. This, they say, will “dumb down” school children, and we will see schools offering “lightweight courses” that “deprive pupils of key knowledge”.

The second story is about something that happened more than fifty years ago. In his book The biography of an idea, Dr C. E. Beeby (Director-General of Education in New Zealand for more than twenty years) tells the story of a trip he made to Te Araroa in the 1940s to attempt to persuade local Mäori of the merits of a new District High School for their area. This new school would add a ‘top end’ to the existing Native School. It would offer a curriculum emphasizing practical/technical subjects designed to prepare students for agricultural and/or domestic work. This, Beeby argued, would help to keep young people in the local area when they left school. At one hui Beeby was challenged by a kaumätua who asked him if he had learned Latin at school. On hearing the reply—that Beeby had in fact learned it – for six years, the kaumätua simply replied “and look where it got you”. Beeby comments in the book, published in 1992, that fifty years later he still hadn’t thought of a suitable reply.

Putting these two stories alongside each other allows us to see some key tensions in the secondary school curriculum, tensions that have been around for a very long time, and that we seem to have no idea how to resolve. Why are they there, and what could we do about them? Why does it matter that they are there? It is these questions that I want to raise—and invite discussion of—here.

I’ll start with two ways of looking at these competing sets of ideas (but there are many more).

Focusing on ideas about what schooling is for, this tension might look like this:

Idea 1: Schooling provides the conditions for equal opportunity by allowing everyone access to powerful forms of knowledge and powerful ways of thinking. These forms of knowledge and ways of thinking are powerful in themselves, and mastery of them gives access to powerful positions in society…


Idea 2: Schooling is an important way of sorting and selecting people for the roles they will occupy in their lives beyond school.

Or: from another angle:

Idea 1: The knowledge that underpins the traditional academic curriculum has been chosen because it is powerful knowledge. It is powerful knowledge because it is universal, timeless, and objective knowledge: that is, it is powerful for—and applies to—all people in all times…


Idea 2: The knowledge that is the basis of the school curriculum is a selection from all available knowledge. It is a selection that reflects and maintains the values and interests of particular social groups and, because of this, it marginalizes—oppresses even—individuals from other social groups.

Thinking about all this again raises some questions for me: for example…

1. Is the traditional academic curriculum, still powerful knowledge? Is this kind of knowledge still linked with powerful ways of thinking? Does mastery of it still provide access to power? Or has the power shifted in the 21st century?

2. If we think ‘rigor’, ‘standards’ and ‘’quality’ are important, does this have to preclude equality and/or inclusiveness? Why does this issue polarise people?

3. What, in the 21st century, does an ‘educated person’ look like? What sort of person should our education system be attempting to produce? Why? Does this person have the same features as one educated in the 20th century? Do we just need to add some more new things – or do we need new, qualitatively different things? What issues does this raise for the curriculum of the future?

What do you think?

If the number of letters to the editor in the Dominion Post in the days following the appearance of the Shakespeare story is any indication, lots of people really care about these issues.

Do you? If so/not why? Where do your ideas come from? Have you thought about them lately?

[1]  15th November 2008.

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  1. Rachel
    | #1

    You’re right, there’s definitely a lot of new territory to explore around ethics and privacy in a web-based world. For people in education in particular there are all kinds of issues I think, especially around the responsibilities of the adult in protecting children from “harm” etc. Interesting territory for research!

    Also re: rethinking ethics, privacy, in the 21st century world.. Have you seen Michael Wesch’s YouTube video The Machine Is Us/ing us? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gmP4nk0EOE. The last few seconds in particular… I’ve watched that clip dozens of times now, I just love how it conveys ideas, I really think it’s a brilliant piece of digital storytelling, very thought-provoking, and more accessible for a lot of people than many books and articles which also deal with these kinds of ideas. It could be a great one to discuss with students.

    Re: students blogging, did you see the link to the Conneticut English Teacher’s blog I posted under “Tales from the blogosphere (part 1)”?

    Re: Place-based education – yes!! Let’s talk…. email me (although I’m not very available til after 10 May – conference leave…:)

  2. | #2

    Hi Rachel. Yes I was only being tongue in cheek, I know who you all are! (Although not Artichoke). The privacy issue of technology and especially with blogs is an interesting question. As much as I want academic transparency teachers still need to be careful, which is why I hypocritically haven’t “outed” myself on my own blog and the reflections on teaching and education I make there. Perhaps I will soon. I am getting a lot of my students to set up blogs to reflect on their thinking and privacy may come up as an issue there although so far it hasn’t. Also, I have really benefited from your environmental educ article that Wally Peneitito included in his place-based education book of readings. It’s great! I’d be keen to talk to you more about place based education and the key competencies sometime…

  3. | #3

    PS. Haven’t we met you at a few conferences? If so, it’s great to see you again in textual form :)

  4. | #4

    Hi Michael, the “blog secrecy” you refer to is a product mainly of our inexperience in using this particular blogging platform (ie. it’s a technical by-product rather than an intention to hide who we are!). You can find out who we are and even what we look like on the “Contact” page of ShiftingThinking.org, and you can also find our profiles on the NZCER website. (Of course, that’s only a small part of who we are). Actually following on from your last sentence, we’ve had some interesting conversations recently at work about people’s different levels of comfort in “outing themselves” on the Internet, and also about how scary it can be to “publish” your thoughts when you’re aware they’re only partly thought through. But as a supposed Gen-Y (or am I at the lower margins of Gen-X?) I have realised there is no such thing as privacy in the 21st century world, and all knowledge is partial, so it doesn’t bother me terribly much :)

  5. | #5

    Lots of big ideas in Jane’s and Artichoke’s writing. I don’t know if this helps, but I am always on the look out for films that serve as good metaphors for education. There is a great one called “Shakespeare Behind Bars”. It shows how even “stuffy” subjects like Shakespeare, with the right teacher, can be emancipatory, and perhaps get toward that middle way of “knowledge as a dynamic collaborative network”. The film Slum Dog Millionaire also serves a useful resource for considering the nature of knowledge. The kid Jamal knew the answers, knowledge which was elitist and I suppose traditionally academic, through his lived experiences as an orphaned slum dweller. But this knowledge was a mere by-product of experiences that were far more raw and meaningful and said so much more about his life and identity. Are we as teachers forcing this banal academic knowledge on students at the expense of recognising our student’s real lives in the hope it will get them a job one day? Do teachers even have a right to access that meaningful part of our students lives? It reminds me of a Basil Bernstein quote I came across about the teacher entering the culture of the child if they wish to reach their consciousness. To avoid Artichoke’s anecdote about the dangers of not teaching students punctuation perhaps teachers need to become conscious of our students real lives, which will always be place-based and local and relate it to the more humanistic aspects of a traditional academic curriculum, and which the documentary makers of Shakespeare behind Bars manage to demonstrate. Thoughts?

    Finally and on a different note, why the blog secrecy? Who is Jane, Rachel and Artichoke? When we write articles or books or give presentations we say where we are from and who we are. I am being hypocritical because I haven’t made the leap to outing myself on my blog yet. But, at some level, I fear this is related to our discussions about knowledge, elitism, and protection.

  6. | #6

    This is thinking that captures my attention Jane – and I am excited to see you wrestling with it here ..

    The response to the Shakespeare thing polarised teachers in the schools I work in … in one school those that thought “studying Shakespeare” was to provide an excluding, oppressing, “academic”, elitist, white man’s knowledge experience clashed quite horribly with those who argued that studying Shakespeare provided a way of respecting the best from the past, a way of sharing writing and thinking that is powerful in helping us understand what it is to be human – that studying Shakespeare is timeless, universal and liberating.

    It was a confrontation that reminded me of bell hooks when she wrote about her early experience of school as being ‘sheer joy’ – ‘a place of ecstasy – pleasure and danger’.

    “To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure. But to learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone. Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself. (hooks 1994 p3).”

    Will the NZC provide both pleasure and danger for learners?

    By removing “Shakespeare” from schools and encouraging schools and teachers to study only knowledge or experiences deemed “relevant to their experience” or “authentic” we would be denying these communities the opportunity to look beyond their own experiences. It is why leaving schools and their communities to develop their own school based curriculum makes me just a little anxious.

    I remember a chance conversation I had whilst waiting for a flight to Wellington last year … a tertiary teacher from South Africa completely changed my laissez faire thinking about spelling and punctuation. She argued that to suggest that spelling/ punctuation was not important – or worth fighting for or insisting on – was to limit the opportunities of the young people concerned … it was oppressive pedagogy … “who gave teachers, who sit so comfortable amongst the trappings of the middleclasses, the right to make these choices that limit how others might live their lives”

    Your post makes me want to think some more about the learning opportunities we provide for our students.

    If we believe that knowledge is unrelated to social position – then we could argue for providing things like Kay’s “universals” – or “Shakespeare”. We would applaud/ respect the teaching of the traditional disciplines – Romance languages and maths and physics in schools and be made anxious by calls for media studies, women’s issues or (e) design to be on offer.

    If we believe that knowledge is experiential/socially constructed – then we might argue that dominant knowledge forms like “Shakespeare” oppress, exclude and silence groups in society. We might adopt an anti intellectual approach and encourage schools to study knowledge they construct in a local curriculum – to look at knowledge from their own unique local community experience.

    But when we argue this way we don’t seem to realise that all we are doing is privileging the knowledge of a different group. And privileging is privileging.

    I think we see some of this sceptical of “experts” thinking in the way we have embraced the Web2.0 participatory collaborative culture stuff in education – the hive mind, wisdom of crowds, the valorisng of the “micro-heroic, Nietzschean acts of the pyjama people”, that idea that collective intelligence is and can be formulated from a Twittr stream.

    There is also a kind of educational relativism evident when we read of “knowledge” gained from generalisations made from “action research” with a sample sizes of 5 students or 5 teachers. We too readily adopt a kind of what is real for me in my classroom with my students is more valid and reliable than any meta-analysis from an academic way of thinking. We happily create learning communities that make decisions based upon collaborative anecdote rather than collaborative evidence.

    If we want powerful knowledge for the 21st century neither of these ways of thinking about knowledge is useful .. knowledge has to be something else altogether …

    I reckon knowledge has to be allowed to be both social and historical – it is developed within communities and across communities in the present and from the past. Arguing about which groups knowledge is best – Shakespeare or something local will not help us – if all we are doing is privileging one group over another we will never progress – we are debating the wrong question – we need to find a new way of thinking about this …

    For the 21st century I reckon we need to think of combining a sense of knowledge that has been tested by time with a sense of you cannot step in the same river twice – Do you think a sense of knowledge might found in Lev Manovich’s ideas around learning as a database – a collaborative authorship rather than a linear narrative/journey?

    Knowledge as a dynamic collaborative networked accessing of a database that is both historical and relevant.

    You will have to excuse the confusion of ideas here – finding the NZCER blogs and the profusion of ideas has created a piglet and the blue braces moment for me .. I am just a little over-excited.

    “But Piglet wasn’t listening, he was so agog at the thought of seeing Christopher Robin’s blue braces again. He had only seen them once before, when he was much younger, and, being a little over-excited by them, had had to go to bed half an hour earlier than usual; and he had always wondered since if they were really as blue and as bracing as he had thought of them. ”

  7. Rachel
    | #7

    Here’s an editorial following on from the article you discussed above: http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominionpost/4772789a6483.html

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